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Should Manchester’s PR agencies be paying their interns?

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As the founder of a new start up PR agency based in Manchester I’ve lost count of the number of other agency owners who’ve told me to take on an unpaid intern to help get my business off the ground.

One Manchester PR agency boss told me that during busy times he’s had six or more unpaid interns on the go.

I can see how it’s tempting and can appreciate the argument that it works for both sides. The intern gets valuable work experience that will hopefully help with landing a job; while especially for smaller agencies it’s an extra pair of hands without the overheads of taking on a staff member or offering a paid placement.

And I’ve done my share of unpaid placements myself. After completing my journalism post-graduate course I did a fortnight’s stint at Elle Magazine, followed by work experience one floor up at Just 17 (which shows just how long ago it was!). I was asked if I could stay on longer, but I was living in London and needed to pay my rent, so I took a full time bar job instead. Did the placement help me? Possibly – but it might have helped even more if I could have afforded to stay on longer. Experience at Elle certainly looked good on my CV – even though in reality all I’d been asked to do was take round the post, or go and buy the journalists a coffee from the cafe next door.

But something about unpaid internships doesn’t sit right with me. I guess it’s not helped by the fact that a lot of the work we do at High-Rise is about social value and community development. I think we all really know that for every bright young thing that comes through the door, there’s another equally bright young thing who couldn’t afford to apply. And it becomes a vicious circle where because other PR agencies in Manchester are doing it as a way of keeping costs down, you think your agency needs to as well.

Joe Tully, Managing Director from Bishopston Graduates agrees. Bishopston has been set up to match interns with good quality and appropriate placements. Says Joe: “On its simplest level, unpaid internships send the message that the work being done by the intern is of no or little value, which is clearly not the case.  I don’t think employers really believe that, either; however, unfortunately, some see unpaid internships as a route to free labour.”

Adds Joe: “Unpaid internships also do the employer a disservice.  Vacancies for paid internships get more, better and more diverse applications than vacancies for unpaid internships.  The employer will have more choice and and will probably recruit a more suitable intern if the role is paid.”

So at High-Rise we’ve decided to pay all our interns the UK Living Wage of £8.45 per hour. We think it’s the right thing to do – and in the long run I hope our clients see it as another good reason to do business with us.


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